Suppose you want to hire a mediator to help you resolve a conflict that you’re having with an individual or a company, but for various reasons, meeting face-to-face would be difficult. That’s where online mediation comes in.
The definition of online mediation is often as contextual as the conflict it attempts to resolve. Mediation is often thought of as the last step to adjudicate disputes. Mediation is a negotiation between two or more parties facilitated by an agreed-upon third party. Skilled third-party mediators can lower the emotional temperature in a negotiation, foster more effective communication, help uncover less obvious interests, offer face-saving possibilities for movement, and suggest solutions that the parties might have overlooked.
But perhaps you and the other party are located in different geographic areas. Maybe your dispute originated in an online transaction, and you’ve never even met. Or perhaps one of you feels threatened or intimidated by the other and is reluctant to meet in person. In the late 1990s, various start-ups began offering e-mediation or online mediation services to organizations and the general public.
The companies developed a roster of trained online mediators who they would assign to facilitate online dispute resolution, primarily through e-mail. This service is now offered across the globe, both by service providers and increasingly by individual professional mediators, writes Noam Ebner in a chapter in Online Dispute Resolution: Theory and Practice (Eleven International Publishing, 2012).
Though companies often use online mediation to resolve high-volume, long-distance conflicts (such as disputes between eBay customers), the range of disputes being mediated online has expanded to include workplace and family conflicts involving people who live in the same area.
The “platform” that mediators and service providers use varies, but the process is generally conducted via e-mail and telephone, while video conferencing and real-time chats are less commonly used. Parties exchange documents via e-mail, and the mediator guides the process.
In one study, mediators reported using a more directive, problem-solving approach in e-mediations than in face-to-face talks as a result of their attempts to maintain the momentum of long-distance talks.
Early studies of online mediation have found it to be an effective means of resolving disputes, Ebner writes. It offers convenience, allowing parties to participate when they have the time. The slower pace of e-mail talks (relative to real-time conversations) allows mediators to carefully craft their responses and strategy rather than needing to react in the moment to disputants’ statements. In addition, e-mail talks can level the playing field between disputants who tend to naturally dominate discussions and those who are more reserved.
Disputants who engage in talks primarily via e-mail will miss out on the cues they would receive from body language, facial expressions, and other in-person signals. Long-distance talks are prone to misunderstandings and also lack the rapport and warmth of face-to-face talks.
Parties may be tempted to “flame” each other (sending hostile or insulting messages) on e-mail or abandon the process entirely when frustrated. Finally, given that disputants often choose local mediators via word of mouth, they may be less trusting of mediators whom they choose somewhat arbitrarily online.
What Makes One Good at Online Mediation?
Of course, serious online mediation training and substantive expertise are critical, as a keen analytic skill. But according to a survey by Northwestern University law professor Stephen Goldberg, veteran mediators believe that establishing rapport is more important to effective online mediation than employing specific meditation techniques and tactics.
To gain parties’ trust and confidence, rapport must be genuine: “You can’t fake it,” one respondent said. Before people are willing to settle, they must feel that their interests are truly understood. Only then can a mediator reframe problems and float creative solutions.
Goldberg’s respondents could report only their own perceptions about why they succeed, of course. A detached observer or the parties themselves might have very different explanations. Indeed, one of the tenets of online mediation practice is to work subtly so that parties leave feeling as if they have reached accord largely on their own, a strategy that is meant to deepen their commitment to honor the agreement.
In an earlier study by mediator Peter Adler, his colleagues explained their success by discussing “the breakdowns, breakthroughs, and the windows of opportunities lost or found.” By contrast, participants in the same cases remembered the mediators only as “opening the room, making coffee, and getting everyone introduced.”
This research offers two lessons for negotiators—including those who must resolve disputes and make deals without the help of a third party. One is the importance of relationship building, especially in contentious situations. Some measure of trust is required before people will open up and reveal their true interests. The other is that a hallmark of an artful process is that others do not feel maneuvered or manipulated.
How has technology helped your online mediation skills? We’d love to hear from you in the comments.
Adapted from “Using E-Mediation to Resolve Disputes,” first published in the March 2013 issue of the Negotiation Briefings newsletter.
Originally published in 2015.